The U.S. News Rankings of Legal Writing Programs: How They Relate to Teaching Contract Drafting

What I do bears little relation to traditional law-school legal-writing programs, which teach writing for litigation—research memos, appellate briefs, and the like. Nevertheless, I had a look at the recent U.S. News rankings of legal-writing programs. (In addition to ranking U.S. law schools overall, U.S. News also ranks them for purposes of ten specialties, including legal writing.)

What you notice immediately is that the rankings for legal writing in no way track the overall rankings. For example, only three schools included in the overall top 15 appear in the rankings for legal writing (Northwestern, at 10; Michigan, tied for 13; and Cornell, tied for 24).

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A 2001 article memorably entitled Legal Writing Instruction: The Pink Ghetto of Academe notes the prevailing view that legal administrators generally hold legal-writing faculty and their programs in low esteem. It goes on to say that “statistics from various studies paint a bleak picture of the salaries and status of legal writing professionals within law schools nationwide.” I’m not sure how much that has changed.

And according to the article, “Many legal writing professionals say legal writing instructors at top tier schools fare no better than those at other schools—that, in fact, some of these schools lag far behind in building their legal writing programs and in elevating the status of the professionals who teach such courses.” The new U.S. News rankings for legal writing suggest that that remains the case.

I haven’t scoured the literature for an explanation, but here’s what some law-school faculty have suggested to me: For students at the “elite” law schools, traditionally the biggest challenge has been getting accepted. A law degree from an elite school pretty much assured the holder of superior job prospects, so exactly what kind of education those schools provided was of relatively little significance. Faculty at elite schools have been free to teach what interests them rather than what would stand their students in good stead in the world of work. One result has been that as compared to “doctrine” courses—courses that teach a discrete area of the law—”skills” courses traditionally received less emphasis at elite schools.

By contrast, students at less exalted law schools have faced greater challenges in the job market and so have clamoured for teaching that would help them prove their value to employers. And that includes skills teaching.

Teaching contract drafting might bear little relation to teaching legal writing, but it too constitutes skills teaching, more specifically a subset of transactional skills. Although an increasing number of schools are offering courses in transactional skills, one would expect, given the relative elite-school disdain for legal-writing courses, that courses in transactional skills would get short shrift at elite schools. I offer some slight anecdotal evidence on that score: At a well-attended May 2008 conference at Emory Law School on teaching drafting and transactional skills, I spotted very few participants from elite schools.

This seeming elite-school ambivalence towards teaching transactional skills prompted two thoughts:

First, I don’t quite understand the dichotomy, in terms of appeal to academics, between doctrine courses and skills courses. Sure, it’s very difficult to find something new to say about general legal writing. But I’ve found in contract drafting endless fodder for intellectual creativity. And some subjects taught in doctrine courses must be so picked over that coming up with something halfway original to say must present a daunting challenge.

And second, the economic crisis means that fewer students at elite law schools can count on effortlessly snagging a BigLaw job. That could well result in students being more vocal in demanding that their education have a greater bearing on what they’ll be doing after graduating.

By the way, in this post I’m dabbling in issues that others have likely chewed over thoroughly. If you think I’m full of it, or if you can recommend blog posts or articles that are particularly insightful, I hope you’ll let me know.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.